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Brett Norris, dynamic writer, tagged me to contribute to The Next Big Thing. A chance for writers to dish some dirt on their forthcoming work. Let’s get filthy.
What is the working title of your book?
The working title was Tales of a Vocabulary Black Belt, but happily that got dropped in favor of Giraffe People as I kept working. I don’t think I’ve ever had a title that suited the work as well as this one does. And it was Cole’s idea. She refers to her family as Giraffe People — lumbering, nomadic, it seemed so exactly right.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I wanted to write about music, and what it had been like to be a kid growing up on military bases. I took my experience on the base at Fort Monmouth, and the base at Aliamanu and I combined them. I was trying to understand what was going on in Iraq as well, and this story gave me the opportunity to go back through the Persian Gulf War and look at the repercussions of our choices there. And, in other ways, I wanted another chance at a first time. I wanted to write about virginity.
What genre does your book fall under?
Oh. Questions like this bug me. What difference does it make? Will you not read it if I name a genre you find boring? It’s a story about being human. So, if you like those, give it a read.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Most of the characters are in high school. I think Emma Watson should play the Army cadet trying to get into West Point, and the narrator, Cole, should be played by someone athletic. Imagine an actor like that, athletic and musical and giraffe-ish. Her. She should play Cole.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A military brat whose father is a chaplain decides to join a punk band during her last year in Jersey and collides with an Army cadet in ways that might kick you in the heart.
What is the longer synopsis of your book?
If you were going to write love letters back and forth — maybe before you even realized they were love letters, how would you go about it? Cole does it with vocabulary lists. High school is a community you cannot get away from. They are imposed upon you, and this is the story of a girl who has to figure out what her community will look like. What does she want it to look like? And, then, later, how will she leave it behind to go to the next base?
This isn’t a coming-of-age book, it’s a coming-of-self book.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Like my previous novels, Red Audrey and the Roping, and A Field Guide to Deception, Giraffe People will be published by Bywater Books. Appearing in stores near you, and the virtual ones in May, 2013.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I think I wrote the first draft in five months. And then, some 18 months later, my wife and I sat on the couch and she read it and we talked about it, and I wrote a revised draft in two days. That second draft is almost exactly the book that will be published in May, 2013.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Have you read Stephanie Vaughn’s short stories? Go listen to the New Yorker podcast of Tobias Wolff reading Stephanie Vaughn’s short story, Dog Heaven. You deserve to hear this story. It’s amazing, and listening to it, walking around my neighborhood in 2009, I realized that the life of kids in the military is secret and unexplored and rich with possibility.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
This is the funniest book I have ever written. And I think the first with characters who are truly likable. I dare you to read it. Come on. I double dog dare ya.Read More
I had my first interview for Giraffe People this week, and one of the questions was “What is your ultimate playlist?” Oh. Man. How much time do you have? And for which age? Like now? This moment? Bjork is kicking through the speakers just now. But earlier it was M.I.A. and Elliott Smith and Iron & Wine, and Metric is forthcoming. Metric is always forthcoming.
Two days ago it was Jazz. (Always capitalized, thank you.) Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. I felt the bass notes climb my spine. I felt the drum kick as the horns wound round and round like tops. I danced through the office during lunch. I danced in the hallway at home while Mary cooked dinner. I am my dance party.
I have my own lyrics for Thrift Shop that I sing on repeat. Also with hopping. And then there’s Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire is the happiest thing to wash dishes to ever.
Oh! My ultimate playlist. Some dude gave me a tape of Cat Stevens when I was in elementary school, and everything changed. I’d been playing this awful piano music, and suddenly I realized I wanted to play guitar. And then I was writing music, and then I heard punk and somehow punk led to Jazz, or maybe it didn’t at all. Maybe I was already hopscotching.
You start talking about music and you’re really just telling a story of yourself. Where you lived and the kind of kid you were. How closely you own that kid now and how much of the old you’ve made room for as you seek out the new. We heard Angel of Harlem in the grocery store this week and started singing to the juice boxes. And just like that I was 12. Just like that.
My ultimate playlist makes room for every version of me. Every style. Every mood. Every kiss. The way the conversations got lost sometimes because we were listening to Regina Spektor tackle a line, a key, a syllable. I remember whole years as pop songs. I remember the way the song danced beside you when you looked up at me.Read More
We vowed these things to each other and to our community, and that includes you.
(Jill) The little man in the voodoo shop explained about his pythons, about
the spells he cast with them. But I was already alight with magic. I
walked down a cobbled street and phoned you. I’d taken you everywhere
in New Orleans, through the markets and cafes, along the water. I’d
read to you. I had your letters in my pocket, and went over them as
though they were maps. But this day, the day with the pythons, you
told me a story about your list. About the things you had learned must
not be compromised in a relationship. I stopped walking. The rain
fell, and a wind kicked through me and I listened. Your relationship
is supposed to nurture you. To make you more capable. More likely to
thrive. I had stopped at a garden surrounded by a wrought-iron fence.
I held onto the gate and listened as hard as I could. I could see my
life, like this city, the haunted decay of it. I felt you pull me,
through the phone, you drew the best of me out. Love was a physical
force: it prickled; outside that locked garden, it hummed through the
city. And I knew I’d marry you. I knew it. I saw it as clearly as I
saw my child before he was born. I recognized you at last.
I was so sad before we met. This grave little thing. You are my act
of faith. Who doesn’t love a good redemption story? You are my
favorite defiance. My purest rebellion. I promise to love you as
though there were no injury. I promise to love you as though there
were no disappointment. I promise to love you. To keep faith with you.
To be your counterpart, this half of the circle. I promise to feed you
ice chips. To worship and adore you. I promise to work, to bring you a
new and earnest heart each morning. I promise to get it wrong, and get
it right, and start again. I promise to be your guard against
cynicism. To be supersonically silly. I promise to dance with you.
Our bodies were built for joy.
(Mary) Dear Jill, okay that’s dumb. Dearest Jill: When I met you, I’d relented. I was cynical. I was cynical about love and the benefit of lovers. In fact, I had determined to become a spinster. I had cats. I started watching television.
All through my growing up years and into adulthood, I had this dream where suddenly, I could not speak so that anyone could understand me.
I would speak and I understood what I was trying to say, but no one else did. Awkward … and lonely.
Being with you means I have someone who always hears me when I speak. It’s a relief and a comfort.
Here’s what I have to offer: I will always orient toward where you are. You are my comfort and my home.
I will always rely on the best in you and assume you are the woman I know you to be.
I will trust that your love for me, the thing I am most sure of, will always win over details.
I will treat your enthusiasms with reverence, because I know that your sense of joy guided me to you.
I will trust your instinct to make me happy; it is more true than my drive to sacrifice my self.
I will love your true love, which is to say — I will put family first and be a mother along with you.
No one was as born to mother as each of us in our own ways.
I will never treat you as a friend; you are not just a companion, you are my consort.
You will always be mysterious and wonderful to me.
More than anything else I can articulate, this is truth: You are singular in the way you make my life worth the struggle. Together we are so much more of all the most and best than apart.
Will you marry me?
Will you stay with me?
Will you feed me ice chips when I’m dying?
Will you actually hear me every day for the rest of my life?
Sally Bellerose’s book The Girls Club won the Bywater Prize and is forthcoming from Bywater Books. Bellerose was awarded a Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts based on an excerpt from this book. The first chapter won first place in fiction from Writers at Work. Excerpts from the novel have been anthologized and featured in literary journals including Love Shook My Heart, Sinister Wisdom, The Sun, The Best of Writers at Work, Cutthroat, and Quarterly West. The manuscript was a finalist for the James Jones Fellowship, the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, The Backspace Scholarship, and the Bellwether Endowment. Robert Olen Butler chose Chapter Two as first place winner for the Rick DeMarinis Short Story Award.
I met Sally Bellerose at Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in 2010. She’d just won a prize and a publishing contract for her first novel, The Girls Club. But what I liked best, and instantly, about her was her irreverence. So, it is with purest pleasure that I give you her 2000-word short story about riding a cow, and other acts of rebellious autonomy.
I love Jill Malone’s blog. Love reading along when she argues, softly or stridently, with herself or the world. Love her love letters to her beloveds, herself or the world. Love her passions on the page. Can’t wait for Giraffe People. I’m honored to be a guest here.
I have tried several times to answer the questions of where the idea for The Girls Club came from and how long I worked on the book. The answers are never the same. What follows is a short story that split and morphed into several short scenes in the novel. Published in 1992, this is the first of several short stories that evolved into parts of the book. I think the book, like most stories, started with desire.
Riding the Cow
In 1957 my father bought his first car and I learned to behave. The car was green, a wood-paneled Chevy wagon. I was white, brunette, a six year old daughter. He loved us both. I learned to behave on Saturday rides to Uncle Billy and Auntie Bernice’s farm in my father’s ‘57 Chevy. It was hard to behave, especially in a car. I had no experience behaving in small moving spaces, but I had no choice. I wanted to ride the cow.
It’s a long ride from Fairview to Granby. I listen to my father sing along with Doris Day, Roy Rogers and the double mint twins. He doesn’t care who’s on the radio, although he likes Perry Como best. The car radio gets one station. I like the music but even at six I know that my mother is right when she says, “That’s enough Dear, you’ll make the children tone deaf.”
I could block out his noise, the way I do when my baby sister starts to bawl as we sit side by side in the back seat, but my father always drags me in to it. He presses his hand to his heart like he’s been mortally wounded and asks, “What do you think, little girl. Is your Daddy’s voice that bad?” My mother yells at him to keep his hands on the wheel.
When we drive to the farm it’s important to keep both of my parents happy. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter. When I’m bad they threaten to put me to bed early or not let me watch TV. I like my bed and I always fall asleep when the TV is on anyway. But on Saturday morning I want them happy. One time they had a fight on the way to the farm. They were fighting because my father wanted to take a puppy home from the farm and my mother didn’t want to. After the fight we stopped to get an ice cream cone and went straight back home, without even going to the farm. I cried. My father said, “It’s O.K. We’ll get you a puppy.” I didn’t care if we got a puppy or not. I missed my cow.
So this morning I’m being careful. If I say my father has a lousy voice he might get mad. If I say he doesn’t have a lousy voice my mother might get mad. They probably won’t get really mad, just teasing mad, but I’m not taking any chances. I want to be a good happy girl, with good happy parents, who let me ride my cow. I try to distract my father from using his lousy voice by reading the time aloud from the round green clock. If I sit up straight I can see the clock from the back seat. It sticks out from the dashboard. My father is proud that there’s a clock and a radio in his car. My mother is proud that her six-year-old can tell time.
When we finally get to the farm my father and Uncle Billy hang around the car admiring the whitewalls and the clock. They open the hood.
My mother, baby sister, Auntie Bernice, and I sit around Auntie Bernice’s big kitchen table. There’s a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table. I don’t grab one. After my Auntie jiggles my baby sister around for a while, she says, “What time did our little girl get to Auntie Bernice’s today?” She winks at my mother.
My mother takes my baby sister and bounces her on her knee. “Go ahead honey. Tell Auntie what time it says on the clock.”
I’m confused because the clock says the wrong time. The big hand is on the twelve and the little hand is on the four. We haven’t had lunch yet so it’s still morning. I say, “Your clock is broken.” My mother beams.
Auntie Bernice is happy too. She says, “Well, what time does it say honey?”
My mother kisses my baby sister. My Auntie gives me four chocolate chip cookies. Everybody is happy.
Uncle Billy and Auntie Bernice have a big farm, my father has a shiny car, my mother has a giggly baby and a daughter who can tell time. I’m pretty sure it’s almost time to ride my cow.
Uncle Billy and my father come in. Auntie Bernice tells them how she changed the clock to trick me.
Uncle Billy picks me up and looks at Auntie Bernice. “Now, Mother, you should know by now that you can’t trick this little lady.” She’s not his mother. I asked him one time. He laughed and told everyone that I thought Auntie Bernice was his mother. On the way home that day my mother said I shouldn’t ask such questions. She said some day Auntie Bernice would be blessed with children and I should behave until then. Uncle Billy and
Auntie Bernice have cows and horses, and chickens. Maybe he thinks if he calls her Mother they’ll get blessed with children.
Uncle Billy sits me down on the counter. I like jumping down off the counter, but he stands there in front of me, so I have to stay put. I want to poke him, but I sit there behaving, staring at his belly until he lifts me off again. He pats my bottom and says, “Go talk to your cow.” I run out of Auntie Bernice’s kitchen. The screen door slams, but no one yells at me.
I push the latch up with both hands and the barn doors swing open. The cows stand in their stalls. Forty-seven cow heads turn toward me. They think I’m going to let them out to pasture, it’s almost time. I run to Molly’s stall. I hang on the rail and scratch between her eyes. She looks at me with her big crossed cow eyes.
She lowers her head a little and I scratch behind her ears. I don’t hear their voices or their footsteps so I climb up the side of the stall onto Molly and straddle her wide back. My legs stick out in opposite directions across her. I hug her neck and tell her how much I love her. She says, “Moo.” I hear my father and Uncle Billy outside the barn and climb off Molly.
Uncle Billy lets me lead Molly out onto the pasture. He picks me up under my armpits, lifts me up off the grass and sits me on the cow. Uncle Billy makes me sit with both my feet hanging down over one side of her fat belly. He thinks that’s how you ride a cow. He never lets go of me. He’s nice to me and smells like the barn, but I wish he would go away.
Mama yells from the kitchen window, “Don’t be scared honey. Billy, don’t you let her fall off that cow.”
Uncle Billy’s hands are big. They reach all the way around me. I want him to go away so I can sit on the cow the good way, with my legs apart. Mama says I’m too small to ride the cow with one foot on one side and the other foot on the other side. She says it’s dangerous because my legs are so short and the cow is so fat. I bet it’s easier to fall off a cow with both legs hanging over one side then it is to fall off a cow if you’re riding it with your legs apart. I want to learn to ride the cow the good way so that I can teach my friends, the Kallowitz twins.
I named the cow Molly. Uncle Billy let me pick out a cow for my very own. I’m the only one Molly lets on her back. Uncle Billy says Molly lets me ride her because I’m such a speck of a girl. It’s really because Molly loves only me. She’ll love the twins too, when she gets to meet them. I have a plan. I plan to behave and make my parents so happy that they’ll say yes next time and take the twins to the farm with us so we can all ride Molly.
Uncle Billy holds on to me and my father walks Molly around the pasture with me on her back. Molly and me pretend that Uncle Billy fell in a gopher hole and my father has to help him climb out. It takes them all afternoon and Molly and me ride around the pasture alone for the rest of the day. I have to stop pretending when Uncle Billy squeezes his hands together and lifts me off Molly.
I could tell time when I was five. When I was five the twins, Suzzie and Jenny Kallowitz, moved in to the house next door. Mama said, “Tell Mrs. Kallowitz what time it is.” I said, “It’s 2 o’clock,” and Mrs. Kallowitz said, “What a smart girl.” Now the twins Suzzie and Jenny Kallowitz can tell time and Mrs. Kallowitz doesn’t think I’m so smart anymore.
I’m the one who showed the twins how the little hand moves. We were lying on my bedroom floor. I was in the middle holding the alarm clock I gave them for their birthday. They have the same birthday. The twins pushed up against me to see the clock and we turned the knob and made it all different times. The big hand was too hard for the twins to read. The twins still don’t know how to read the big hand.
The twins wear shirts with no sleeves. Sometimes when it’s hot they don’t wear any shirts. I always have to wear a shirt, except in the tub. It was very hot the day I taught the twins to tell time, but we were playing at my house, so we had to keep our shirts on. I’ll teach them the big hand at their house.
Once I slept over the twins’ house and we wore Mr. Kallowitz’s T-shirt. It was so big that it fit all three of us at the same time. I asked Suzzie if I could be a twin too and she said yes, but Jenny said no. I bet Jenny would let me be a twin if I let her ride my cow.
Now it’s 8 o’clock at night. I’m home in bed in the stupid pj’s with sleeves and long legs my mother and father make me wear. They won’t come to bed until 10 o’clock. Jenny and Suzzie get to stay up on Saturday until Mr. and Mrs. Kallowitz go to bed. Then they get to wear sleeveless babydolls, but I don’t care because I’m going to ride my cow. Saturday nights are the best nights to ride because I almost always get to see Molly on Saturday mornings. Sometimes I don’t put the clothes I wore while I was sitting on her back in the hamper like
I’m supposed to. I roll them up and hide them under my bed. I take them out when it’s time to ride and put my head on them. They smell like Molly. I squish up the sleeves and the legs of my pjs. They bunch around my armpits and between my legs. Tonight I have a long time to ride. Sometimes it takes a long time before the blanket and sheets I pull up between my legs get to be my cow. Tonight it’s easy.
I throw one leg over my covers and lie on my side. I ride with one leg on one side and one leg on the other side, like you’re supposed to ride. I pull on the reins and the saddle pushes in to the big crack below my belly button. No one knows that my sheets become Molly’s secret cow saddle and secret cow reins. Even my mother and Uncle Billy don’t know. They think that reins and saddles are only for horses. Uncle Billy keeps telling me that when I’m bigger I can ride his horses. I’m never going to ride Uncle Billy’s horses.
The harder I pull on the reins the faster Molly goes. Cows can go fast if they want to. I squeeze my bottom and feel my two asses. Jenny and Suzzie have three different names for their bottoms. Asses is the best one. I like to feel Molly pulling up the middle of my asses. When she starts to run fast she makes two of me. Two me’s, both the same. Two asses and two legs and two arms and two eyes. Two sides just the same. I’ve got an extra everything.
I think it’s funny that I have an extra everything, two me’s. I squeeze my bottom harder and giggle. I don’t giggle loud because I don’t want my mother to come in to find out if everything is alright. I squeeze from the hole in the back to the hole in the front. I pull Molly’s reins. I think it would be fun if I could squish my two me’s together. Molly likes it too. I’m going to tell the twins there’s four of them. I squeeze and squeeze. I squeeze me and me and Suzzie and Suzzie and Jenny and Jenny. Molly runs faster, faster. The cow bell dingle dingles. I hold on tight to her reins and grab her neck to stay on. I’m a little scared but Molly talks to me in her cow voice, “Don’t be scared honey.” I squeeze into myself. Faster, faster, we go, me and me and Molly and Molly and the four twins. We hang on to each other tight and we ride very fast and very far, the good way.
“Martha”, “Riding the Cow”, edited by Janet Aalfs, Sally Bellerose, and Susan Stinson, Tuesday Night , Orogeny Press, 1992.
“Riding the Cow”, The Body of Love , edited by Tee Corrine, Banned Books, 1993.
Stella Duffy has written twelve novels. Theodora, published by Virago (UK) in 2010 and by Viking Penguin (US) in 2011, is her first historical novel. The Room of Lost Things and State of Happiness were both longlisted for the Orange Prize, and she has twice won Stonewall Writer of the Year. She has written over forty short stories, including several for BBC Radio 4, and won the 2002 CWA Short Story Dagger for Martha Grace. She is currently working on the sequel to Theodora, The Purple Shroud, as well as several film and theatre projects. Stella is also a theatre director and performer, and has written eight plays. She was born in London, grew up in New Zealand, has lived back in London for since 1986 and is married to the writer Shelley Silas, her partner of 21 years.
I woke this morning to an email from Stella Duffy with this piece attached. She hoped it could have some more exposure. I don’t think it could have enough exposure. I hope you’ll share it as well.
I noticed last week that someone had found my blog by googling “My daughter is struggling with her sexuality and I can’t accept it”. I was delighted they’d found my blog and hoped it was of use, but then I realised they might not look through the pieces about writing or theatre to find the LGBT stuff, and I really didn’t want them to go away without the help or support they needed. So I wrote this. I really hope they came back and found it.
Firstly, thank you, on your daughter’s behalf, for being honest. There’s loads of things we find hard to accept from our parents and children, different sexualities – different to that we’d expected for and from them – is just one of them.
Secondly, you’re not alone. Many people find it hard to come to terms with their children’s adult lives, be it about what they do for work (or don’t do for work!), or who they love, or where they live, or how they live.
Thirdly, you probably can accept it you know. You’ve probably accepted loads of things in your life that your own twelve or fourteen-year-old self never expected to accept. You can accept this too.
It’s sad she’s struggling, there are probably many things you can do to help. There are loads of organisations in the UK where I live, and wherever you live, there are bound to be some too. Google parents of gays, or parents of lesbians and gays, or parents of LGBT – I bet you’ll find loads of helpful organisations, blogs, sites.
It’s true, that in some parts of the world being gay is still a crime. It’s true that in some parts of the world that crime is still punishable by death. But it’s also true that things ARE getting better. That in very many places, LGBT people lead utterly free and fine lives. And where that isn’t yet possible, I can assure you, many many of us are working to make it better. Perhaps, if you are scared about your child’s future in a world that isn’t yet free from all homophobia, you might become one of those wonderful activist parents, who campaign on behalf of all of us, and how lucky we are to have them. How lucky I was to have parents who were fine with me – and to have in-laws (who took a long while to come round) and are now great!
Perhaps you’re concerned to do with your faith. You certainly wouldn’t be the first who worries that their child is breaking God’s commandments, but if you’re of the first book then you’ll know there are only Ten Commandments and none of them mention homosexuality, and if you’re of the second book you’ll know Jesus said “let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. If you’re Muslim I can assure you, contrary to current Islamaphobic propaganda, I know LGBT gay people who find their faith very liveable alongside their sexuality. And while googling LGBT + faith might bring up some depressing sites, I suspect you’ll also find some great organisations who believe that acknowledging the truth of one’s sexuality is an act of great faith and belief, of honesty to the maker they believe in.
Why else might you find it hard to accept … because the media likes to portray us (lesbians) as boring and man-hating and childless?! I promise you, none of those things are true either. Or they might be true, just as any woman might be boring, or man-hating (I think I know way more man-hating straight women than man-hating gay women though!), and certainly infertility doesn’t only affect lesbians.
Or perhaps you’re worried because your child is struggling. Then you can help her, there will definitely be groups you can find online, perhaps you could even go together. (She may be struggling with thinking she’s gay when she’s actually bisexual, that’s always possible too. Or vice versa. Unlike straight people, gay people are often OK about being a bit more fluid with their sexuality decisions until they get a bit older, though it can be confusing. I wish, for their sake, that straight people were also encouraged to sometimes think it’s ‘just a phase’ and they’d grow out of it, didn’t make their own choices about heterosexuality so early – we might have fewer broken relationships when one or other of a straight couple finally comes out!)
It’s different to you, sure. Any parent might worry when their child ends up different to them. But isn’t that what you wanted from raising a child? A strong, smart, bright person, able to make their own choices? To live their own life successfully?
So … be concerned, struggle if you must, worry, hope – that’s what all parents do, all the time. And keep on listening and loving and helping, stay open and engaged, and don’t ever, ever close your door.
It WILL be fine, if you allow it to be.
Good luck to both of you.
ps – if on the very small off-chance you happen to be a gay parent struggling with your daughter’s heterosexuality … sheesh. didn’t coming out teach you anything about being kind and open??!!Read More
In 2007, at my first Saints & Sinners Festival in New Orleans, I found myself seated behind two women. One was murmuring to the other that it was going to be perfect and not to worry. Awhile later, the one woman got up with her book, and her encouraging partner tensed, and then Bett Norris read a quiet little passage from her first novel, Miss McGhee. It was brilliantly funny. The humor entirely in the character’s passive aggressive dismissal of anyone bothering over her. No, I don’t need a thing. Not one little thing. Afterward, when Bett joined her partner, she had the oddest expression. “Why was everybody laughing?”
I think this is my favorite thing about Bett Norris. Her humor is effortless and genuine. When I was working on Field Guide, I freaked out, and sent her a panicked email, and she stayed up all night and read the manuscript and encouraged me. What I’m trying to say is that Bett Norris is one of those artists who nurtures. She nurtures her own work and she nurtures the work of others. I admire her. I admire her work. Here’s a brief exchange we had recently:
1. Tell me a story about sex. Make it personal or impersonal, as you like.
Not going to answer this. Nuh uh. No way.
2. What makes a story lesbian, and why is that important?
A lesbian story is one that features a lesbian as the main character,
which shows us that we get to star in our own movies and songs and
books. We get to be the hero, the one who gets the girl, who solves
the crime, who rescues the galaxy, who lays siege to the castle. In
lesbian stories, we get to read about ourselves as John Wayne,
Katharine Hepburn, as Brad Pitt, or Matt Damon, as Tom Hanks or any
female actor you care to name. (I named male actors because they,
more than women, seem to retain a glimmer of that “movie star” status
from decades dominated by Cary Grant and James Stewart and Bette
Davis, that era when film actors were considered as royalty, and were
given latitude as such.)
In addition, a lesbian story is doubly so when written by a lesbian,
by someone just like us. There is a certain thrill in knowing that
Katherine V. Forrest wrote stories of strong lesbian leads and herself
stood as an example to all of us, it was a source of pride that she wrote
those books for us, and we took pride in them because she is one of
us. Forrest’s Kate Delafield is as strong and as conflicted and flawed
character as you could hope to find in any genre. Kate is as tough as
Philip Marlowe, as vulnerable as any one of us, and the growth and
change throughout the eight books of that series is fascinating,
enthralling. When I was growing up, I always got a special, secret
thrill when I discovered some famous person was gay, like me. That’s
what makes a story “lesbian.”
Do we still need to have distinctively lesbian stories? I think so. In
2004, I was at a panel discussion about the history of lesbian
fiction. On that panel were the iconic Ann Banon and Katherine V.
Forrest. I will never forget when Forrest turned to Ms. Bannon and
said, “Your books saved my life.” In a very real sense, Forrest’s (and
others’) books did that for me.
3. Define power. Give examples.
I am not sure what you mean by power. My partner answered this with
one word: autonomy. To me, power and autonomy don’t necessarily mean
complete freedom. It means being able to be completely, wholly who you
are. Most of my life has been circumscribed by other people’s needs
and expectations, by responsibilities, by my own dreams, by my deep
need to earn something, respect, love, I’m not really sure.
Sandy and I have a term for this kind of self-imposed conscription
into a service not unlike the military, where one moves up the ranks
and is rewarded for obeying the commands of those who seem to
understand the rules and the conventions of life that elude me. We
call it eggshells, as in walking on eggshells and restraining natural
and instinctive urges to be who we are.
There is a feeling of power and freedom that comes from writing, and
it is the coolest, best thing. When the words just flow, and I stop
thinking, and it becomes like a dance, a song, with a rhythm of its
It is odd, and striking, that I do not think of myself as having
power, but nothing makes me more angry than when confronted with the
powerless. So I recognize its absence, yet I am uncomfortable when
asked to define exactly what power is.
4. What is your dinner party story about your childhood? (E.g. My
father is a minister who made me drink shots of brandy when I was ten so I’d never be tempted to drink.)
There are so many. I remember my father used to call me Sixgun. I
recall my childhood as me playing the part of the naive dupe. I didn’t
get the joke. I thought I was slower than everyone else, like they
moved through air and I slogged through thick, syrupy stuff. I
remember being the cause of laughter. I am not sure that it was
because I was funny.
Bett Norris, born and raised in Alabama a few short miles from the place where Harper Lee did the same, followed in the footsteps of her idol and inspiration by attending the University of Alabama, somehow managing to graduate with a degree in history and a burning desire to write. Real life intruded, but many years later, her first novel, Miss McGhee, a runnerup for the first annual Bywater prize for fiction, was published, a story set in the south during the decades of the civil rights movement. She dutifully set her second novel, What’s Best for Jane, in the South as well, certain that the well of rich material to be found there will never run dry.
Norris continues to write using the South as source material and setting. “Almost everybody’s got a story about crazy relatives, mad dogs, good trucks, fishing, deer hunting, drinking, cussing, fighting, football, running around barefoot in the summers, better times in the past, and where the bootleggers live.”
She now lives in Florida with her partner Sandy Moore, an artist. Bett gets up every morning at an insanely early hour to write.
Find out more on the author’s web site, www.bettnorris.wordpress.com.Read More
A number of weeks ago, the writer, Sally Bellerose, emailed me a series of interview questions, and I found, when I sat to answer them, that the questions broke me open. I began to think about my work and my process in a different way. You can read the interview here, Sally Bellerose’s Blog.
I’m nearly through the edit of Giraffe People. Eighteen months, at least, have passed since I last read the manuscript. And I can see the characters’ intentions now, and again, I have that sense, like with Field Guide, that my subconscious was already telling the story I would later be brave enough to flesh out. The bones are there. Now I get all the Ah! moments. Ah! That’s why she’s behaving this way! Of course! And this is why, later on, they…. The incident was already on the page, the motivation just needed fleshing, or the emotional aftermath.
We see when we’re ready to see. But it was there all along. That’s why writing feels like magic, but is really about practice.Read More
Today, I’d like to thank Georgia Beers for our conversation about titles, and for hosting me on her blog: Georgia Beers’ Blog
This weekend, re-reading Giraffe People, and thinking about the edit, I realized I’d have to play through on the Nice-Guy Myth. Here’s military brat 101: be wary of the kid who swarms you when you walk into the classroom on day one, and promises to help you navigate the school and its social hierarchy. That kid is Nice-Guy Myth, Exhibit A. That kid is trying to control the story. He or she is trying to get to you before you have a chance to collect data and form your own conclusions.
But the Nice-Guy Myth is everywhere — in your neighborhood, in your office, in your social groups. It’s most evident in breakups. Not just romantic breakups, but friend breakups too. The Nice-Guy is the one who phones everyone mutually known to the couple, and jumpstarts the spin. “I’m just so worried about her. She’s obviously in crisis, and her decision-making has been affected, and …” blah I’m the hero of this story blah. Side with me! I’m the nice one!
The Nice-Guy Myth insinuates in a way the listener finds uncomfortable, but can’t quite pinpoint. Why do I feel like I’m being manipulated? You’re saying you’re worried. You’re not being hostile. You seem concerned.
The Nice-Guy Myth is all seem. But it’s a control mechanism. It’s stammered propaganda. I’m this guy. Trust me. This is the guy I’ve always been. Nice-Guy. And she’s leaving because she doesn’t like nice. She doesn’t value nice. She eats nice dipped in virgin blood from the hollowed out bodies of puppies. But not at first. That story comes later. At first, I’m the Nice-Guy, and I’m just expressing my anxiety about her choices because I love her. I love her more than myself. And I just want her to be happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. You know me. And nice is important to you. That’s how we’re different from her. You and I.Read More
So, day 3 on the blog tour, and I’d like to thank Marianne K. Martin for hosting me and for letting me run with my Aikido metaphor: Marianne K. Martin’s Blog
On Monday evening, a boy threw me as part of a technique, and I could feel my body wanting to backward roll. I tucked as I hit the mat, and felt my hips come up. Roll! Roll! We took turns, the boy and I, and finally he whispered, “I’m going to backward roll on this one!” And then he did, and I don’t know which of us was most excited. When he threw me, suddenly, I rolled. I rolled right up. Just like that. It was all I could do not to cheer. And then from the sideline I heard, “You rolled, hooray!”
We’re excitable children. We’re careful not to injure one another while we’re pinning and throwing and countering. Last night, I read the Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, in a modified child’s pose with a poultice on my shoulder. Love is about breaking open. It is. All growth is about breaking open. We are supposed to fail. It’s our job. We’re supposed to get it wrong. And keep going. It’s the keep going that takes so much courage.
I read a children’s book, and cried. I managed a backward roll during the technique and I celebrated. I love you. You, out there, in the world. Keep going.Read More
I’d like to thank Lindy Cameron, for hosting me on her site today as part of the Bywater Blog Tour: Lindy Cameron’s Blog. The one I wrote for her, and the one I’ve written here, function in tandem. You know, sort of.
I was standing in front of the wood stove. We’d been in the house for five minutes, long enough to see his tribal artifacts, his clay-colored paint, the utility of the rooms. Long enough to see there wasn’t a bathtub, and so Mary would never agree to live in this house. Heather, our real-estate agent, and one of my favorite humans, walked in from the kitchen to say, “This house is so you. My god.” She wandered back out, and I looked at my shoes. We’d only just begun searching. Our fourth house, maybe. It felt like meditation, this house. It felt like prayer.
Mary walked into the room. I could see her black stompy boots. And I felt myself steel against the inevitable refusal. The “it’s perfect, except” comment. She said, “How set are you on more kids?”
I looked up at her. “But there’s no bathtub.”
She nodded. “I love this house.”
It’s the thing nobody articulates, the thing we don’t know how to articulate: the person you love, the person you intend to spend your life with, your values have to match up. Not be modified so that they match up, but actually match up. How much shit do you need? Are you buying piles of new clothes, and driving a new car, and watching cable television? Do you shop at box stores? Do you read books? Do you espouse pacifism but kick people around to get your way? Do you believe education will save us? Will you fight for women? Will you nurture children, the ones born to you, and the ones born to others? Do you see the value in a simple life? Do you see value?
Sometimes I stand in our house by the wood stove and remember the way her stompy boots cut through my vision. The way her question promised a whole life.Read More